Innovation

The poster child for the power of internet community: Buzz Out Loud celebrates 10 years

On Sunday, Buzz Out Loud held its 10-year reunion bringing together its popular hosts and its influential community to celebrate the pioneering podcast that trumpeted the power of internet community.

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Veronica Belmont, Molly Wood, and Tom Merritt prep for 10-year anniversary episode of Buzz Out Loud.
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

It was a long way from the 6th floor studio at the top of CNET's headquarters on Second Street in downtown San Francisco. That's where the Buzz Out Loud podcast was born in 2005 and it where reigned for seven years as one of the most popular shows on the internet. (Full disclosure: CNET and TechRepublic are both part of CBS Interactive.)

The show's 10-year reunion was held in a much more scrappy venue: the new Hak5 Warehouse across the bay in Richmond. But, Buzz Out Loud fans still showed up in droves and the studio/hackerspace where they staged the reunion show on Sunday, March 29 had a new media, salt-of-the-earth quality that fit perfectly with the community vibe that made Buzz Out Loud such a success.

Tom Merritt, Molly Wood, and Veronica Belmont—the show's early hosts who've all gone on to successful media careers—organized the event and served as the main panelists for the 90-minute show that was streamed live on YouTube, Diamondclub.tv, and Alpha Geek Radio.

They didn't talk tech news like they did during the show's heyday when it was such a popular way for commuters to catch up on what was happening in the tech world. Instead, they talked about how the whole thing got started, why it became such a hit, how's it's shaped the careers of so many different people, and how they are all trying to catch the same kind of magic again.

Today, cynicism about the value of comments, forums, and community is running rampant in the media world and the current trend is to limit or eliminate comments. Too often comments turn into troll mud wrestling, or worse, misogynistic attacks on women. However, Buzz Out Loud remains one of the best examples of how internet community can be a powerful force for good when it's done right.

The show evolved rapidly from an experiment where CNET executive producer Mark Larkin told Molly and Tom they needed to take the great chemistry they had in debating tech topics over lunch and turn it into a podcast. Their ability to debate intensely but still remain friendly was an immediate hit with the audience, although Wood's famous "Molly Rants" were arguably the show's biggest draw.

Within six months it became one of the most downloaded shows in the rising podcasting movement and turned Wood, Merritt, and Belmont—the eventual third host who often served as the comic relief in the Wood-Merritt face-offs—into tech industry celebrities. From the beginning, Merritt pushed to involve the audience in the show through emails, voicemails, and eventually a live chatroom. Wood said she reluctantly bought into the idea when Merritt said the listeners were fundamentally people just like them who loved tech and wanted to learn more.

"Tom understood immediately that the heart of that show was going to be the people who listened to it," said Wood, who has gone to work for The New York Times and American Public Media's Marketplace.

"I learned that at TechTV," said Merritt. "I never thought we would get that special relationship with the audience again."

Buzz Out Loud took it even further by giving the audience a sense of ownership in the show. Merritt emphasized that it took a lot of work to curate and maintain a great community. He credited the CNET staff members for moderating as well as a team of volunteer moderators led by the community's designated chief, GKnee. The volunteers did a lot of self-policing if there were trolls trying to start trouble.

The Buzz Out Loud audience even made a name for itself: "Buzztown." It built and maintained a detailed wiki for the show, it regularly came to meetups and big events such as the 1000th episode of the show, and it even mailed a shirt across the globe so that listeners could sign it and send it to the hosts to show them how much the show meant.

And not only did the show launch the careers of Wood, Belmont (who recently hosted the online stream for the launch of Game of Thrones, season five), and Merritt to greater heights, but it also launched several of its listeners to successful podcasting and media careers as well, including:

  • Nate Lanxon - Went on to jobs at CNET UK, Wired UK, and Bloomberg
  • Scott Johnson - Went on to launch his own podcast network, FrogPants Studios
  • Nicole Spagnuolo - Went on to host and organize multiple podcasts, including the DragonCon Podcast
  • Iyaz Akhtar - Went on to gigs at PC Magazine, the TWiT Network, and CNET
  • Pelle Eklund - Went on to launch a hockey news site, hockeybuzz.com

The show also had an impact on others like Aaron Belcher, who credits BOL with inspiring him to go back to college in his late 40s so that he could get a job in tech. He eventually graduated in his early 50s and went on to land jobs at a couple of Silicon Valley's iconic tech giants.

Former hosts Natali Morris, Jason Howell, Rafe Needleman also joined the 10-year reunion broadcast. Morris, who had the thankless job of following Wood when Wood left her full-time role at Buzz Out Loud for a period in the middle of its run, received a misogynistic nastygram from a Twitter user during the 10th anniversary broadcast (Morris posted a screenshot on Instagram). While this showed that Buzz Out Loud still isn't immune to the worst aspects of internet trolls, the Buzz Out Loud community immediately descended on the Twitter account of the offending user, which resulted in his Twitter account being banned within 24 hours.

A decade after its launch, it was an example of one of the internet's best communities showing why the web can still be a great place to meet like-minded people and make friends. That was the fundamental idea behind BOL. It was less of a broadcast or even a podcast. It became more of a friendcast. And that legacy lives on in the people and the shows it inspired.

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About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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